George Gillespie and the Regulative Principle of Worship (Part 2)

A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies (1637)

Last time, we looked at the confessional and historical evidence for a robust understanding of the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW), and introduced one of George Gillespie’s treatises on the topic of worship as a case study. Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies Obtruded on the Church of Scotland (hereafter EPC) was a call for united action by the Reformed Church of Scotland, it was also a meticulous massacre of the legitimacy of the Anglican ceremonies which had been placed like a heavy yoke on the Reformed in Scotland. The main thrust of Gillespie’s treatise was that only the Word of God has the authority to bind the conscience in the ordering of the worship of God. This is the Rule of Worship and it runs throughout his treatise.

After calling upon Scotland’s divines to take action and defend against the impositions, Gillespie then divided his work into four parts, each part responding to a particular argument of the popish English bishops. His arguments were thus: Against the Necessity of the Ceremonies; Against the Expediency of the Ceremonies; Against the Lawfulness of the Ceremonies; and Against the Indifferency of the Ceremonies.

Gillespie began the first part of his treatise by invalidating the legitimacy of the bishops’ arguments that the ceremonies were necessary in the worship of God. For example, when Gillespie rebutted the imposition of kneeling at communion and participating in holy days besides the Lord’s Day, he argued that it could not in good conscience be imposed as necessary practice, since it was not prescribed in the Word of God.

In defense of liberty of conscience, he wrote,

“Who can blame us for standing to the defense of our Christian liberty, which we ought to defend and claim in whatever things?” says [Martin] Bucer. Shall we bear the name of Christians and yet make no great account of the liberty which has been bought for us by the dearest drops of the precious blood of the Son of God?1

He therefore urged the Reformed to test the English bishops’ ceremonies against the Word of God,

Try their precepts by the sure rule of God’s Word; and when we find that they require of us anything in the worship of God which is either against or beside his written Word, then to modestly refuse obedience, which is the only way of order.2

This was Gillespie’s main point in his opening response to the English popish ceremonies: let them be tested against the Word of God as the only rule of worship; if they do not stand the test, then they cannot be necessary for worship.

In the second part, he argued against the expediency of the ceremonies. Whereas the English argued that their popish innovations were too small a thing to bother complaining about, and thus were expedient to implement and practice; Gillespie argued that if the ceremonies were neither biblical nor profitable, then they could not be expedient.

He referenced the second commandment as he wrote against the expediency of the ceremonies,

[T]he ceremonies are impediments to the inward and spiritual worship because they are fleshly and external. In the second commandment are forbidden all rites which are inharmonious with the spiritual worship of God…then may we say of our unnecessary and unprofitable ceremonies that they are exceedingly nocent3 and harmful to the true and spiritual worship.4

For Gillespie, it was expedient to prevent the popish innovations from the worship of God because he argued that once certain “expedient” ceremonies crept in, the door would soon open for other unbiblical, unnecessary, and inexpedient rites that would similarly bind the conscience of men. He wrote,

They [ceremonies] are dangerous preparatives for many worse things that we are aware of, and may draw after them sundry evil consequences…[in]novations in a church, even in the smallest things, are dangerous. Who can blame us then to shun a danger, and fearing the worst, to resist evil beginning; to give no place to the devil; to crush the viper while in the shell; to shun the appearance of evil; and to take the little ones of Babylon whilst they are young, and dash their heads against the stones.5

When overcome by the Word and reasoning, the bishops pointed to the authority of the Church to institute ceremonies and rites it saw fit to practice in worship. Gillespie disregarded this notion of conformity to the bare authority of the English Church as he concluded the second part of his treatise,

We make our meaning plain when we object to the scandal of conformity; for many ignorant and superstitious persons are by the ceremonies confirmed in their error and superstition; so that now they even settle themselves upon the old dregs of popish superstition and formality, from which they were not well purged. Others are made to practice the ceremonies with a disallowing conscience.6

Thus, he appealed to Reformed Rule of Worship in keeping the worship of God pure from the ceremonies of the English Church.

In addition to arguing against their necessity and expedience, Gillespie also responded to the bishops’ argument that ceremonies were lawful. In the third part, he argued that superstition had taken the place of the authority of the Word of God. He defined superstition in this way,

Superstition is that which exhibits divine worship, either to whom it does not owe it, or not in the way in which it owes it…ceremonies, though they exhibit worship to God, yet this is done inordinately, and they make the worship to be otherwise performed than it should be.7

Rather than worshiping God as commanded in Scripture, the English ceremonies forced Christians to worship unlawfully, thereby binding the conscience to the will of man. In response to the bishops, Gillespie wrote,

Yet what more necessary duties that to worship God in a spiritual and lively manner; to press the power of godliness upon the consciences…to have all things done in God’s worship disposed according to the Word; and not according to the will of man; not to exercise lordship over the consciences of those whom Christ has made free; to abolish the monuments of by-past and badges of present idolatry.8

Gillespie’s argument once again reflected a commitment to the Rule of Worship as he defended legitimate worship as that which was according to the Word of God and therefore did not unlawfully bind the consciences of men.

In the final part of EPC, Gillespie dealt with things indifferent—that is, things that by nature are neither good nor evil. According to his opponents, the popish ceremonies were indifferent, and were thus permissible in worship. He answered,

Let us then, either see the good of the ceremonies, or else we must account them to be such things God never gave princes nor pastors the power to enjoin…The ceremonies are not indifferent, because not withstanding that they are prescribed and commended unto us as things in themselves indifferent, yet we are by the will and authority of men compelled and necessitated to use them.9

Something that was indifferent, by nature of its indifference, could not also be urged upon them as necessary.

In each of his four main arguments, Gillespie stayed true to the Rule of Worship. He steadfastly contended against the Anglican bishops by asserting the authority of God’s Word in binding the conscience of the Christian in the worship of God. This was the same defense employed by the Reformers before him and it is the same doctrine which Reformed Christians find in their confessions and catechisms in the present day.

Gillespie concluded his treatise with one last call to the Reformed churches of Scotland,

Wherefore, O Scotland! Strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die (Rev 3:2). Remember also from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else thy candlestick will be quickly removed out of its place, except thou repent (Rev 2:5).10

His call to action and defense of the Reformed doctrine of the RPW is as appropriate today as it was in the 17th century.

©Scott McDermand II. All Rights Reserved.

Part One.


1. Roy Middleton, “Historical Introduction,” in George Gillespie, A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies, ed. Chris Coldwell (Dallas: Naphtali Press, 2013), 26–27.
2. Ibid, 29.
3. Criminal.
4. Ibid, 90.
5. Ibid, 88.
6. Ibid, 128.
7. Ibid, 130.
8. Ibid, 131.
9. Ibid, 415.
10. Ibid, 419.


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One comment

  1. This history is very helpful in understanding how the RPW is lived out and applied. Thank you.

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